Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Senseless Loss

December 18, 2012

I met David when I was living in Guatemala in 2003. He was one of a group of boys who lived in a park called Plaza Berlin at the southern end of the Avenue of the Americas in Guatemala City. Watched over by another street dweller, David and his friends made their home under a sidewalk and had their daily strategies for survival. I knew David through the efforts of a ministry to street kids that worked hard to reach out to these boys. David never left the streets, and I have continued to bump into him over the years as he has moved around Guatemala City.

Most recently, David became part of a group called "Los Peregrinos"...a group of drug addict street dwellers who make their living scavenging at the Guatemala City garbage dump.  Every Monday evening, the members of Iglesia Bautista Cristo es el Camino have a meal and worship time for this group, trying to show a little bit of love to these men who long ago slipped through the last crack in their society and ended up at the dump. In the last couple of years, it was increasingly obvious that years of inhaling solvent were taking their toll. David grew weaker and thinner, constantly trembling due to the neurological damage from the drugs.

Yesterday, I got the news that David was dead. The story I heard was that he ate some food laced with poison. Was it murder, suicide, or an accident? I only know that it is tragic...and senseless.

I would like to say, "Please pray for David's family," but outside of a handful of street family and some caring people who have loved him over the years, he had nobody. From the world's perspective, David slipped from obscurity to oblivion. Most of the world won't care...or even notice that Guatemala has one less drug addict sleeping on the sidewalks outside of the garbage dump.

We have lost too many of our world's young people for senseless reasons. We are ALL precious in God's sight. I know that David had professed Christ as his savior, and even though he never escaped the material problems of his life, he did win the spiritual victory. In that final lonely moment, I know that David truly slipped from earthly obscurity to an eternal freedom in the presence of God. I rejoice in that, but I am once again convicted that those of us who are still on this side of eternity need to redouble our efforts to share the truth of the Gospel and to engage the spiritual and physical battle before us.

No matter how often we bathe or how well we dress, we are all God's street kids. We all hold onto things that are offensive in God's sight. Let's not fool ourselves. To see a young man like David is to look into a mirror. I am thankful that God didn't "step around me on the sidewalk." Instead, he saw me and reached down to help.

People ask, "Where is God in all of this?" I am convinced that God was with David every moment. The better question is this. Where are God's people?

Adios, David. I'll see you again.

January 6, 2013

POSTSCRIPT:  I printed copies of photos of David from the 10 years that I knew him, and I shared those with some of his friends in Guatemala while I was there over Christmas and the new year. They remember him...and mourn.  (Photo by Pastor Saul Pérez.)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Dedication of New School - ADVANCE Nicaragua (Chinandega)

[Today, we had the privilege of attending the dedication of a new preschool in Chinandega, Nicaragua. This was the vision of JBU Walton Scholar Ana Paulina Villanueva, a resident of Chinandega. Ana asked me to make a few comments. Here is the English version of that text.]

Good morning! My name is Joe Walenciak, and I am Dean of the College of Business at John Brown University. On behalf of many friends at JBU and in Arkansas, I bring greetings. Many have prayed and worked for this school, so even though there are only several of us here today, we represent a team of hundreds of people who join us in this moment to celebrate and to dedicate this school to the glory of God and to the children and families of Chinandega.

In August 2008, I met Ana Paulina when she arrived at John Brown University. All I knew about her at the very beginning was that her school work was excellent and that she had a very big smile. As the weeks and months passed, we grew to know Ana Paulina as a person of good character with a sensitive and loving heart. She spoke very fondly of her family and of the people of this place called Chinandega. Ana Paulina always saw and shared the best about people, but it was also clear that she clearly saw the needs in her community. She began to talk about children who needed a school.

In January of 2010, Ana Paulina sat in my office and shared a vision for the future of her community. She talked, and I wrote. She talked about finding school supplies and helping to make sure that the children had something healthy to eat, but she also smiled and shared her dream of building a school building so that the children would safe and dignified place to learn and build their futures. She envisioned a community that would unite for the sake of its children’s education and future.

Ana Paulina began to draw key people into her team. In Arkansas, she began to work with people like fellow students Suyen Espinoza and Daielis Rodrigues, both of whom are here today. She also began to work with Clayton Anderson, Director of JBU’s Students in Free Enterprise (or “SIFE”) organization. Back here in Nicaragua, the team grew to include Ana Paulina’s family and many of you, people who are willing to say that your children’s education and future are more important than anything else. Back at the University, we watched an amazing community of people unite and go to work for a great cause.

Why are we here today? What are we celebrating? The answer to that is in the name of the school, “Miracle of God.” We are here today to celebrate God’s goodness and to dedicate this building and many generations of young people whose lives will be changed through education, through the love and support of their families, and through the transforming power of a loving God. The true miracle here is not the building. The miracle is each life that will be touched because of what you and God have done here in this place.

God honors the faithfulness of His children, and we can learn from that here. Ana Paulina had vision—she saw something in her mind that did not exist. She was innovative—she had to look for new and creative ways to make it happen. She had faith—she chose to believe that something was possible, even they she could not see it. She went to work, and she did not give up. Vision, innovation, faith, and hard work. Ana Paulina serves as a testimony that we have a loving God and that each one of us can make a difference.

We are very proud of Ana Paulina and her team.

Congratulations! What a privilege to be with you on this very special day! May the “Miracle of God” continue in each of your lives and in the lives of your children for many generations to come. God bless  you and keep you! Thank you!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Everyone Needs an Enrique

May 27, 2012, Guatemala City

Yesterday was a frustrating day. My phone rang in Guatemala City at 4:45 a.m. with the news that the Graduate Guatemala Studies class was facing flight cancellations and would not arrive on time, requiring that we rework the itinerary for the first two days and miss the kickoff excursion to Lake Atitlan completely. On top of that, my buddy at the place where we rent cars gave me the wrong van. It is one of those 15-passenger high-top vans with lots of head room. It is nice to have that extra space above your head, I suppose, but you can't get these things into any of the parking garages of Guatemala City. The good news was that Manuel (my buddy) agreed to meet me and swap out the high-top van for a regular van. The bad news was that he did not show up at the appointed hour. There was a good story and a lot of excuses, but no van.

We are in the early days of the rainy season here in Guatemala, and yesterday afternoon produced a good, healthy rain. I started to get worried about logistics for picking up the class last night. The convenient parking garage is not convenient for a high-top van, meaning that I would have to park at more of a distance, walk over and greet the team, leave them standing, walk back in the rain to get the van, and drive around to pick up the team. None of this is insurmountable...just frustrating and highly inconvenient.

Enter Enrique Quiñónez. About 4:00 in the afternoon, Enrique said, "Let's go to the airport and get permission to park at the curb." Being the good North American that I am, this was an uncomfortable suggestion. Parking at the airport curb...right outside the arrival area...is frowned upon by the authorities. I did not relish the idea of showing up alone at night and arguing with the police that I actually DID have permission to park under the "no parking" sign.

Things like that just don't slow down Enrique. I could share countless stories. This one was typical. We went to the airport. Enrique said, "Stay here, I'm going to talk to that policeman," pointing to the first uniformed official we saw. I watched in awe as Enrique talked to one, two, then three officials. The next thing I knew, he was bringing a gentleman over to meet me...the head of security at the airport. This gentleman introduced himself and told me that I had complete authority...in his name...to park in the "no parking" area right outside the arrivals area, and if anyone gave me any problems, I should mention his name and call him directly.

I cannot tell you how many times Enrique has talked us into parking lots, out of situations, through all kinds of things. I see this as a gift from God, and I am thankful to have Enrique around when I am in Guatemala.

Honestly, there are a lot more important reasons to have Enrique around. He and his wife, Cecy, love to serve and evangelize, and they never waste an opportunity. Enrique has a great personality and builds friendships with students and friends that I bring to Guatemala. Many JBU undergraduates go home talking about "Papa Enrique" and "Mama Cecy." Having Enrique and Cecy around is a blessing...AND I get to park under the "no parking" signs.

Thank you, Enrique! Lord bless you!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Clean Water has Come to Chajul, Guatemala!

May 22, 2012, Chajul, Guatemala

History will probably never remember that clean water came to Chajul, Guatemala, for the very first time on May 22, 2012. But the people of Chajul...and a group from John Brown University...WILL remember this day.

The JBU Guatemala Water Project has been a journey...a story too long to tell here. It really began in March 2011 with a meeting between people from JBU and Compassion International (Guatemala) in Guatemala City. The journey eventually led us to Chajul, a remote village which was at the heart of the nation's 36-year civil war and which continues to be isolated and neglected. Other than a limited amount of expensive bottled water that most of the residents of Chajul could never afford, there has never been any kind of water purification in Chajul.

I am very proud of the JBU Guatemala Water Project team. In spite of so many obstacles and setbacks, this group has stayed committed to the people of Chajul. Today, as we ended Day 2 of training and installation, we were actually able to turn on the machine and watch clean water come out! The JBU team and the Chajul project leadership team ended today with a time of prayer, and then we all shared a toast and enjoyed a glass of the very first water ever to be purified in Chajul.

Most of the world has never heard of Chajul, and they won't ever know or remember what happened here today. But for those of us who were here, we will never forget.

Purified water has arrived in Chajul, Guatemala!

Dr. Larry Bland fills his cup!

The Chajul team praying for the future of this project

The JBU team praying for the future of this project

For the glory of God and the health of the people of Chajul!

Monday, May 21, 2012


May 21, 2012 - Chajul, Quiche, Guatemala

Today was a good day in Chajul, Guatemala.

In July, 2011, Larry Bland and I visited three villages in Guatemala for the purpose of developing a water purification project. This was to be a partnership between John Brown University, Healing Waters International (and their Guatemalan arm "Aguas de Unidad"), and Compassion International. All three villages captured our hearts, but there was something very special about Chajul. It is an isolated community with severe poverty and problems with clean water. There was also an incredible Compassion Student Center there that could serve as home to the water project. Throughout the visit, I took pictures of a lot of curious children, including the young lady in this picture. She was in the street near one of the locations we visited. I never got her name or knew anything about her, but she sure was a gorgeous young lady.

July 2011 - Chajul Guatemala

With the help of Stacie Burley, Karen Morales, and a team of graduate students from JBU, the project began to develop. Stacie decided that we needed promotional materials, so she looked through the pictures from my first Chajul trip, found this picture, and decided that this young lady should be our poster girl.

Over the course of the year, by the grace of God, the dream has become reality. This girl became the face of the JBU Guatemala Water Project. People continued to ask me her name, and I couldn't tell them anything. She may have been an unknown girl in an isolated village, but her beautiful smile touched the hearts of many donors and prayer partners.

The story of the Guatemala Water Project is long, and even though there have been many struggles and challenges, the whole journey has been a testimony of God's goodness, grace, and love for His people. As I write, I am in a small hotel outside of Chajul, having just watched the team complete Day #1 of training for the people in Chajul. The machine is here, and the people who are going to run it are amazing. Clean water is coming to the people of Chajul!

As part of our time here, we decided to find this girl whose smile has touched our hearts. Working through the staff of the Compassion Student Center in Chajul, we found her today. Her name is Geidi.

Geidi's mother brought her to the Student Center. They are so poor, she didn't want us to see where they lived. We gave Geidi a copy of the Guatemala Water Project poster. Also, because we used her picture to promote this project, we wanted to do something to bless her family...so we presented them with a large basket of food supplies. We told Geidi how her beautiful smile is helping the people of her community. I'm not sure how much of all of this she understood. Maybe some day she will understand how God used her when she didn't even know it. I pray that she will grow to be a woman who loves God.

Today was a good day in Chajul.

Geidi - May 2012 - Chajul, Guatemala

Geidi and Joe

Geidi's family receiving a food basket

Our lovely poster child and the Guatemala Water Project team

Friday, May 18, 2012

En Confianza...Entre Amigos

May 18, 2012 - Guatemala

"En confianza...entre amigos." This is the slogan of Agencias Way in Guatemala, and it means "With trust, between friends." Agencias Way has built a thriving business with a great business model based on building relationships with people, helping to meet the needs of the people while building a successful business. Agencias Way serves a lot of the "common folk" outside of Guatemala, bringing everything from essentials for the home to medical care to many people.

With trust, between friends.  That was my day today.

When Cecy Quiñónez told me that she needed to make a short trip to deliver a couple of wheelchairs to some rural Guatemalans, I should have known better, but I agreed anyway. After a few detours, one washed out bridge, and some other issues, the whole journey through Jalapa and Jutiapa, Guatemala, took about 12 hours from the moment we left the house to the moment we got back. I am pretty exhausted tonight, but I would not trade this experience for the world.

I'm not really sure how Cecy even met these people, but the Lord dropped them in her path some way. The first was a lady named Elsa who was diagnosed with diabetes and has since had one foot amputated. She lives on a mountain outside of Agua Blanca, Jutiapa, Guatemala. The second was an elderly gentleman named Raul who has all sorts of problems, and by the way his feet are swelling, I assume that one of those problems is kidney failure. Raul lives near Miramundo, Jalapa, Guatemala.

I won't even describe the route we took, because I was clueless most of the time, even though I drove the whole time. We were on numerous unpaved "short cuts" that were described to us by the locals, many of which wound through the mountains. Even though I am sure that most of these actually took longer, the scenery was spectacular. If I had a nickel for every time someone today told me, "Turn at the gas station," I would be a rich man. Do you know how many gas stations there are in Guatemala? Oh, and praise the Lord for four-wheel drive! The only time I have seen more of Guatemala on a given day is from an airplane!!

Anyway, this was an amazing day. As I mentioned, Elsa lost a foot due to diabetes, and we are all afraid that this is only the beginning. She and about 11 or 12 members of her family live in one small room and sleep in about 4 beds. Her family is not able to carry her, so the wheel chair will make a difference. It is about the same situation with Raul. We don't know all of his problems, but his family says he has polio. We saw about 10 people who live in one room, and that is also the kitchen. As with so many houses in Guatemala, there is a constant open fire that creates risk and fills the whole living area with smoke. The drive up to Raul's house was only possible with four-wheel drive, and at some points, I didn't think the car would fit. It did. Raul's family said they knew "about God," but did not claim to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. I had the privilege of standing there and hearing Enrique and Cecy share the gospel with this family. The seeds are planted, and God's word never comes back empty.

Raul's story requires just a bit more telling here. There was no way we were going to find this place, so Raul's son, Migual, met us in Jalapa, and since it was already 4:00 in the afternoon and we had not had lunch, we invited him to join us at the local Pollo Campero. Miguel told us his story, and it was quite moving. I sat there an looked out the window of the restaurant at the Agencias Way across the street, and there it was again. "En confianza...entre amigos." I was reminded that we were making some amazing new friends today, and it was incredible how they took us into their confidence and shared some very intimate details and struggles. We told them that these wheelchairs came from God, not from us, and maybe there was something about this that broke down barriers, creating an immediate bond and trust. God's grace was all over the place. As we went back to the car and showed Miguel the wheelchair that we were going to take up the mountain to his dad, we realized for the first time that it did not have the foot supports! So we began to look around Jalapa, Guatemala, for a wheelchair store, and amazingly enough we found ONE, and we bought their LAST SET of foot supports, that JUST HAPPENED TO FIT this particular wheelchair...and were the SAME COLOR. At moments like this, you know that God is parting the sea for you!

Once again, I sit here amazed and the experiences that God has given me. How can I not be thankful? And how can I not have joy for what God is doing? What a blessing to have new friends here in Guatemala.

With trust. Between friends. Praise the Lord!

Elsa with her new wheelchair

Elsa and family, with the new wheelchair

Raul and his new wheelchair

Raul and his family, with the new wheelchair

Actions of Love All Around Us

May 18, 2012 - Guatemala City

It is good to be back in Guatemala.  I arrived midday yesterday without any problems.

One of my first tasks was to visit the Acción de Amor (Action of Love) construction site in zone 3 near the entrance to the garbage dump in Guatemala City. This is one of the places where a group of JBU students sweat and worked in March of this year to help construct Rayitos de Esperanza, a school and play area that will serve the people who live in the settlements on the edge of the garbage dump. The construction is being made possible through God's grace and through a memorial fund established by the Pollard family in memory of their son, Ben. 

This whole area is reclaimed landfill. It does not have a lot of value beyond the fact that it can be occupied by countless families who need a place to live while they spend every day searching for treasures in the trash at the garbage dump. When I first saw the small property, it was quite unattractive, but the people of Iglesia Bautista Cristo es el Camino when to work to clean away the garbage and then to begin creating something new that will be of value to children and families in this place, many of whom don't have much hope. Even the name, Rayitos de Esperanza, means "little rays of hope."

The whole process reminded me of what I try to teach to my Gateway Seminar students every fall...the reality of creation, fall, and redemption of the Christian world view. God created an amazing world which has been corrupted by sin, but even in that corruption there is evidence of God's amazing creative power and the potential for redemption. This was a beautiful valley that was corrupted not only by the trash of a garbage dump but also by a system that holds people in this situation without much hope something different. The Action of Love project is bringing Little Rays of Hope to this place, redeeming corrupted land for a purpose that recognizes the dignity, beauty, and amazing potential of God's people...redeeming land to redeem lives.

As usual, once I arrived here, I found myself in the middle of many actions of love.  Today, I get to drive two wheelchairs out to a place called Jalapa.  And tomorrow an amazing group from JBU will arrive to continue with the Chajul water project.

Rayitos de Esperanza truly is a very special action of love, but I find myself surrounded by so many big and little actions of love. Even the family who lets me stay at their house, Enrique and Cecy Quiñónez, show me one action of love after they next as the continue in their daily ministry to the people of Guatemala, and as they open the doors of their home to me.

We have a powerful God who loves his children and who is actively involved with his creation. This is evidenced by countless actions of love around us every day. We just need to see them. Sadly, we often become distracted by the tragic, the sad, and the shocking events of the day, and it is easy to lose those "little rays of hope," even when we live lives of relative abundance.

Don't lose the opportunity to see the actions of love around you every day...and to participate in them.

The Rayitos de Esperanza school and sport/play area continue to take shape as part of the "Action of Love" project.  Photo taken May 17, 2012.